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Christmas Cacti: A Beautiful Winter Plant To Enjoy!

By Majo Bates

Master Gardener

I Love Christmas Cacti, as it is commonly called. (Botanically known as Schlumbergera or Zygocactus, according to Wikipedia). I have a beautiful one in bloom as I write this article. Christmas Cacti require a bit of understanding!  Kinda like “what makes them tick” and even though I do not say I am an authority I think I do know “what makes them tick.”

If we want them to bloom properly, we must remember they are short day plants!  This means they bloom best when nights are at least 15 hours long. They like cool temperatures of between 50-55 degrees F.  in the P.M. and 65-70 degrees F. during the daytime, light hours.   This needs to go on for the whole blooming season. (It’s a good thing we like our house cool to sleep.)

Thanksgiving Cacti have flattened leaves with pointed teeth on the margins as opposed to Christmas Cacti which has rounded teeth. Easter Cacti have pointed teeth with fibrous hairs on the leaf joints. Most of the time these 3 Cacti will bloom close to the holiday suggested by its name. However, some florists will sometimes force plants to bloom at other times. I hope my hints actually help you to be better able to identify what you purchase or are given!

When plants are in full bloom they should be kept in bright, INDIRECT light. Too much light can cause the flower color to fade or too much heat may cause the flower buds to drop. Day temperatures of 70 degrees F. are considered ideal. A common problem with these plants is dropping unopened flower buds.

This may be because of sudden or drastic changes in temperatures.  Sudden changes in light that they are not accustomed to will have an effect also. Their major problem is a disease called root rot, which is caused by too much watering.

When the flowers fade, continue to grow the plant as a houseplant. The soil should be well drained. Never should it be wet or even moist. Fertilize monthly between April through October with a liquid houseplant fertilizer.  You can prune them in June to encourage branching.  This should also help with helping the plant have an even flowering time and help to have more buds which will flower out as well. This is also a good time to remove a few sections of a large plant with your fingers, snap, or with a sharp knife. Again these pieces can be rooted to make more plants.

Christmas Cacti come in some beautiful shades of red, purplish pink and some are even yellow and also a peach color.  Oh!  And also white!!!  You can grow a variety of different colors if you have friends with a color you want. Just ask if you can snap off a piece at a joint.  Stick it in good soil and keep moist. It will root and grow.  I love to give them as gifts.

It is hard to predict how long a Christmas Cactus will live.

Our Grandma Beadle had one for well over 50 years. She eventually gave it to me.  I had it for more than 10 years. It was gorgeous and bloomed without fail. Grandma Beadle kept hers in a South window so when we brought it to our house it went to a South window.  (I have lace curtains in my South windows which help diffuse the light).  Grandma instructed me on how much and when to water it. Like all gardeners who want to “save” a family plant, I followed all the instructions. Eventually it got woody!  And then suddenly, it died!!!  I wish I had taken a lot of pieces and rooted them.

I hope all of you will get to experience a Christmas Cactus growing in your home.  And if you purchase one, choose a color you really like.

Call your local University of Illinois Extension Service soon please, to enroll in Master Gardening Classes which start in January!

Merry Christmas!

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